HYDERABAD, India — One of the largest gatherings of people in the world continues in northern India amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases and a weakening supply of vaccines.
Almost 3 million Hindu pilgrims have bathed in the Ganges River as part of this year's Kumbh Mela festival, raising concerns that the festival could become a super spreader event. On Monday, the festival's second-holiest day, India's Health Ministry reported nearly 170,000 new coronavirus infections. India's total caseload has become the second-highest in the world after the United States.
On the banks of the Ganges, Hindu prayer music is interrupted by whistles from police, trying unsuccessfully to enforce social distancing rules.
Police are using artificial intelligence-enabled surveillance cameras to spot people not wearing masks. But because of the huge crowds, it's practically impossible to issue fines on those not abiding by the rules, Sanjay Gunjyal, who's in charge of security for the festival, told local media.
India's drug regulator authorized the Russian vaccine Sputnik V "for restricted use in emergency situations" Tuesday, making it the third available vaccine in India. The country has so far administered more than 100 million doses of vaccines but at this rate, experts say it would take years to immunize the entire population of nearly 1.4 billion.
Even as the virus surges to its worst level, daily life remains unaffected in most parts of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians have addressed massive campaign rallies in several states holding local elections.
When Muslim scholars held a congregation in New Delhi last year, before India's lockdown, politicians and many from India's Hindu majority blamed Muslims for spreading the coronavirus.
Last month, when reporters asked Uttarakhand's chief minister about COVID-19 concerns ahead of the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival, he said no one would be stopped from coming because of the pandemic.
"Pilgrims' faith will overcome the fear of the virus," he said.
NOEL KING, HOST:
India confirmed more than 217,000 new COVID cases today alone. And yet millions of pilgrims have come to the banks of the Ganges River to celebrate the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela. Here is Sushmita Pathak.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims are packed together along the banks of the Ganges River. They jostle for a holy dip that's believed to erase any sins. But their devotional chanting are interrupted by police whistles...
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)
PATHAK: ...Trying to ensure social distancing. India is confirming record numbers of new coronavirus cases each day as religious festivals, like the Kumbh Mela, are still continuing. And COVID rules are being flouted.
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SANJAY GUNJYAL: (Non-English language spoken).
PATHAK: The police official in charge of security at the festival, Sanjay Gunjyal, told Indian media ensuring social distancing has been difficult. That's also true for crowds at massive political rallies taking place in several states holding local elections. Epidemiologist Giridhara Babu says he's really concerned.
GIRIDHARA BABU: Be it Kumbh Mela or the political rallies, we should be preventing every type of crowd.
PATHAK: Banning all gatherings should be the government's priority, he says. After last fall's peak, COVID cases declined. Businesses opened up and colleges resumed offline classes. Big weddings started happening again.
BABU: There was a feeling that we have almost won over the virus.
PATHAK: But now cases are rising faster than ever before. And Babu says new variants of the virus are responsible. Social media is full of pleas for help from people trying to find hospital beds for their sick relatives...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want to go to the hospital.
PATHAK: ...And videos from inside clinics of patients lying on the floor, even dying outside in the parking lot unable to get in. Several cities have announced restrictions on movement and even curfews. The Taj Mahal and other monuments closed this week. The state of Uttarakhand, which is hosting the Kumbh festival, is restricting gatherings to 200 people except for this one Hindu festival. And now more than a thousand pilgrims have reportedly tested positive.
VINEETA BAL: Imagine those people who have infected each other. They are going back all over the country.
PATHAK: Immunologist Vineeta Bal says it is, quote, "ridiculous" that such a massive gathering was allowed to take place at the worst moment of India's COVID pandemic. Last spring, when a Muslim missionary group held a conference in the capital, New Delhi, India's Hindu nationalists and right-wing media erupted in outrage and blamed Muslims for spreading the virus. But this time, even though cases are much higher and the crowds much larger, their reaction is muted.
BAL: And this time, it is Kumbh Mela. Is anybody talking about it? Absolutely not.
PATHAK: For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Hyderabad, India.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRILOK GURTU AND ARKE STRING QUARTET'S "YORAGATHUPAGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.